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Asking the Right Questions

  • Posted by: Ellen Kandell
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It is natural for people to get defensive when they are in conflict. In this post, I’d like to suggest some other approaches that are more beneficial and may produce a better outcome. Rather than engaging in defensive communication, try the following: stay centered, breathe deeply, stay positive, listen to what the other person is saying, and ask questions. Asking questions, a big part of a mediator’s job, accomplishes several objectives. First, it allows the other person to feel as if they are being heard. Second, it enables both parties to start to uncover the source of the dispute. Third, the emotion underlying the conflict is likely to be expressed. Finally, it starts the trust building process.

You also start to get to the heart of the conflict by asking questions. Anger and defensiveness are usually masking a deeper emotion, and the real problem causing someone to be argumentative. Questions asked in a calm and conversational manner may also help the other person relax and shift out of utilizing defensive or aggressive behaviors.

I’ve written previously about three communication options in conflict: other-centered, self-centered, and relationship-centered communication. Just from the titles, you can tell that only two of these are non-defensive and steer away from aggressive behaviors. A person who utilizes self-centered communication is likely to exhibit aggressive and argumentative behaviors such as backstabbing, intimidation, bullying, and manipulation, and these behaviors can be verbal or physical. A mediator will analyze the communication styles already in use by all parties in the conflict and be able to shift the tone and discussion toward the heart of the conflict. This is done by asking questions about assumptions, emotions, or those things which seem known or obvious to disputants but which are actually main points of objection.

Many of these questions, especially if you are directing them toward yourself, require you to remain calm in the face of conflict in order for them to have a beneficial effect.

Open-Ended Questions

When attempting to resolve a conflict, open-ended questions are among the best types of questions to ask. You gain more insight from these types of questions than you do with the interrogation-style questions, like those asked in a court room on cross examination. A closed question is anything you could answer completely with a simple “yes” or “no”. Open-ended questions involve active discussion and participation, and elicit more detailed answers than monosyllables. These kinds of questions typically begin with why, what, how, or possibly who or where, depending on context. They also help you to remain in non-defensive and nonviolent communication by considering what the other person is thinking or feeling. In contrast, examples of closed questions are: “Did you think about that?” or “Are you satisfied?”

Let’s look at some good open-ended questions to use in conflict resolution:

“What about that was important to you?”

There are multiple variants to this question that could be used: “What about that was important / hurtful / significant / bothering / upsetting to you?” This question invites the other person to get to the true heart of the matter. A skilled mediator will ask appropriate follow-up questions to help parties arrive at that main point on their own. This may also help to calm them down as they arrive at a new realization that they may not have considered at the beginning of the conflict. Once you arrive at the main crux of the matter, you can more easily begin to address it with the other party and work toward resolution.

“What would make the other person’s position right?”

This question is similar to putting yourself in another’s shoes. Ken Blanchard, an author and management expert, recommended this question in his 2010 blog post on resolving conflict. This takes you out of the immediate conflict and invites you to think about the other person’s position and where they may be coming from. Asking this question enforces more logical or critical thinking rather than emotional thinking. This is valuable during mediation because once both parties are able to move past the emotional or defensive reactions, it’s possible to reach the heart of the conflict and bring resolution. By attempting to see how the other person could potentially be right, you have to backtrack and view in a more objective fashion the events and situations leading up to the conflict. This question is more beneficial if you are the upset or defensive party in the conflict, but it would be applicable to both parties.

“What can we learn from this?”

Michael Hyatt, an author and mentor on personal development and leadership, asks a variant of this question in his article “7 Suggestions For Asking More Powerful Questions”. This question is valuable for helping both parties consider what could be learned from the events that led to the conflict, and maybe even from the conflict itself. If you can come away from the conflict or the mediation having learned something, then there is value in the communication. This kind of question is especially valuable for workplace conflicts and helps coworkers or teams to avoid similar mistakes or events in the future.

Questions to Avoid

You would want to avoid questions that put your co-worker or friend on the defensive, particularly those questions that could call into question the other person’s honesty, accuracy, or judgment. Some of these questions are: “Why is that?” and “What did you think would happen?” Avoid an interrogation-style questioning, as this makes people uncomfortable and limits the discussion. This may come across as self-centered communication, which would not facilitate the kind of discussion you would want when attempting to resolve a conflict. If the other person views you as interrogating or bullying by asking sharp, short questions, you could only further escalate the issue. When a mediator asks the right questions, it may feel uncomfortable if one or both parties are emotionally charged, as these questions may invite vulnerability. However, this vulnerability is also what helps to establish a connection between parties and start the process toward resolution. By asking the right questions, a mediator helps you to work through the emotions of the conflict and shift toward more open and receptive communication.


Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience. She provides mediation, group facilitation and training to diverse, national clients. Get in touch with her via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, or give her a call at 301-588-5390.

Author: Ellen Kandell

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